Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Interview with Tran Quoc Bao

Tran Quoc Bao is a Vietnamese-American film director who lives in Seattle, Washington

He has written and directed several films, including Bookie (2008) and Black Coffee (2009), and edited the Vietnamese action feature Cho Lon (2013).

I've been wanting to interview Bao ever since we ran Bookie on here back in March 2012. When he popped up on Twitter, I grabbed the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

There are about 300,000 Vietnamese living in Australia, mostly in Melbourne and Sydney. The ones in Adelaide all seem to have the name Nguyen. Could you walk us through your name—on IMDb it shows as "Quoc Bao Tran," on Twitter it is "Tran Quoc Bao," and your e-mail is "Bao Tran."

My name is Tran Quoc Bao. On IMDb they standardize their name order, which is not very friendly to Asian names who use surname first and given name last. (For example, "Wong Kar Wai" is listed as "Kar Wai Wong".) On IMDb I have "Tran Quoc Bao" as an a.k.a. listing. Confusing!

For the sake of simplicity, you can just use Bao (first name) Tran (last name).

When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

I am the VHS rental generation so I grew up watching movies on TV. The theaters in town you had to drive to so I didn't really have too much exposure to that until I was older. I remember TV stations would fill their daytime slots with a lot of Hollywood movies from the golden age. And there used to be a cable program called "Kung Fu Theatre" that showed a different chop-socky picture every weekend. I'd record these movies on tape and watch them over and over. I remember finding something new in them each time. That seems pretty opposite of what happens today when you have instant access to so much content and it's easy to gloss over scene details and moments.

Being an Asian immigrant family, we'd also rent a lot of Hong Kong TV serials. There doesn't seem to be anything quite like it in the West, on average an entire series would be about 40 hours—that's a lot of videotapes to rewind! They'd be all kinds of stories like melodrama, romance, fantasy kung fu, gangsters, ghosts, and period costumes epics. But you knew the story would have an ending and not drag on and on like some shows in America do.

Who has had the most influence on you as a filmmaker?

Jackie Chan
Despite all that movie watching, I never took a real interest in actually making them until I saw Jackie Chan's 1980s movies. That's when he found his style and came to be the star he is today. He wasn't just about martial arts, he had physical comedy and a command of filmmaking that was on a whole new level. It made me want to learn how to do what he did.

Jackie said his major inspirations were Chaplin, Keaton, Astaire, and Kelly. So you follow the source of the source. That became my film school, studying their movies and emulating them (however poorly) in my backyard. What I realized that they had in common was they told their stories—be it fighting, comedy, or dance—in a purely visual way that went beyond language and borders. That was very inspiring.

Brian McDonald, whom you've featured quite a bit, really opened up my eyes to understanding what exactly a story is. He has a unique way of cutting through a lot of crap and misconceptions about story structure. He showed me the heart of the craft.

You live in Seattle, which has a surprising concentration of writers, actors and filmmakers. What attracts creative people to that part of the world?

Smokey Robinson
It's funny because I just saw an interview with one of my favorite songwriters, Smokey Robinson, and he was asked a similar question about Motown and Detroit. How did he and The Supremes, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin all come out of one city? He answered that Detroit didn't have a monopoly on talent, in fact there's just as much talent in every town the world over. But what set these Detroit legends apart was the opportunity to work together and a common drive to improve themselves.

I definitely see that in the lasting collaborations I've made in Seattle, people I trust enough to work with again and again. It's not groupthink, we argue and disagree but in the end we're on the same page about process, sensibility, and respecting the audience. There must be a kind of creativity magnet that brought us together. Whether intentionally or through force of nature, you will connect with those who see the world like you and you end up pushing each other to get better.

You recently completed work editing a Vietnamese movie which was subsequently banned by their authorities. What went wrong with that project?

Charlie Nguyen and his brother Johnny Tri Nguyen are an amazing director/actor team. They made their mark with a Vietnamese action movie a few years back called The Rebel and they wanted to take their game to the next level with this hugely ambitious gangster movie, Cho Lon. I had a great time editing for them and we all were excited to release domestically in Vietnam in April 2013. We even had deals set for theatrical releases in America and Europe based on the trailer alone. I really believed it could have been the next The Raid: Redemption by showcasing Southeast Asian cinema to the world.

Unfortunately the Vietnamese film censorship board wasn't ready for it and ended up banning the film because of, to paraphrase, 'gratuitous violence that will negatively influence the youth.' (They had already banned The Hunger Games the year before on similar grounds.) Of course, our team disagrees with the decision and are sorely disappointed. But it's a touchy issue for those of us who still want to work in the country, if you catch my drift.

Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn (2013)

To add salt to the wound, an unofficial version was recently leaked online. This was not the director's final cut. It was a politically correct edit that was submitted to appease the censors. It's severely truncated with many incomprehensible sequences. The action scenes were hastily shortened and additional ham-fisted scenes of "competent" policemen were inserted. On top of that, the sound mix, special effects, and color grading are rough and unfinished.

Within a few days of the leak, bootleg DVDs went on sale in the streets of Vietnam. So please support us filmmakers and boycott this version, as we are still fighting to get Charlie and Johnny's total vision to the screen legally!

I really like your B&W noir film Bookie. How did you come to make that film, and do you have any plans to revisit that world?

I wanted to make a kind of do-or-die short to really show what we can do. At the time I was only watching old black-and-white films and listening to 1960s soul/R&B music, so it somehow swirled together in my head to write a story like this. I'm glad that audiences have taken to it, we've had such a great time showing it at film festivals and online. And it's also been fun and rewarding to see throwback-soul music and black-and-white cinematography become so popular nowadays. 
Angela Adto, in Bookie (2008)

Movies are so hard and exhausting to make, so I want to explore themes that are strong enough to keep inspiring me all the way through production. I'm not too big on revisiting old ground, but if the interest is there for a feature, I just might have to. And by interest, I mean investors.

What was the best advice you were given at the start of your career?

Don't be afraid to copy.

What one filmmaking advice book would you recommend to a young wannabe screenwriter in Adelaide?
Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet. 
Do everything he says.

What are your ten favourite movies of all time?

Here's a start:  
Casablanca (1942)
Rear Window (1954)
Seven Samurai (1954)
12 Angry Men (1957)
The Apartment (1960)
Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Amadeus (1984)
Aliens (1986)
Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

What’s next for Tran Quoc Bao?

There are a couple projects I hope to make in Vietnam, but it's still being sussed out. As for English-language, I just wrote a down-and-dirty kung fu script that I'm excited to direct. It's going to be an indie movie, so naturally we will need to raise the modest budget ourselves. My producers and I are exploring the best way to do so and how we can get interested fans involved with funding. We're just getting it off the ground, but I can't wait to share it with the world.


Here is the trailer for Cho Lon, the Vietnamese movie edited by Bao, that you might never get to see.

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